When ‘Goo Goo dolls’ sing their famous number ‘IRIS’, I don’t think they ever refer to any wild flowers. But I couldn’t find a more apt way to express my feelings for the delicate delights of the purple & blue hills of Shoja, Himachal Pradesh. In my opinion, it is the other ‘Valley-of-flowers’. Just a few hours drive from Aut on the way to Jalori is this valley of flowers in Himachal, for those who can’t trek for 3 days in the one Uttaranchal.
I first saw wild Iris in Hampshire, UK. Everyday on my way to office I’d eagerly peer out of my taxi for that turn which opened up a little patch of bright yellow daffodils & purple irises. I waited in anticipation for that unruly colourful patch that punctuated the otherwise neat and orderly green countryside.
“Don’t you get these flowers in India?” the taxi driver asked.
“We do, up in the Himalayas, but I haven’t seen any there.” I secretly wished there was some way I could touch the flowers. Much later I downloaded some pictures, & hoped someday I’d touch them.
My wish was granted on the summer I went to work for a summer camp in the Trithan valley in Himachal. It was one regular morning and we were taking the kids on a trek towards The Great Himalayan National Park beyond Goshaini. I was on my leisurely walk plucking tiny wild strawberry from the undergrowth of shrubs. That is when I spotted my first ‘Iris’. I screeched the trekking team to a halt. I jumped and shouted & scared people by doing so. My trek partners were surprised. Someone plucked some cannabis, “Where did you get it? Show me where did you rub against ‘bicchu buti’ (stinging nettle)?”
"No, I didn’t get the bichhu buti”. (Rubbing cannabis is a sure cure to stinging nettle… but the resultant residue you get where you rub it, is another tale altogether)
The guide, teased, “I told you, don’t have those wild strawberries. All sorts of creatures pee on them.”
The trek leader, glared, “Stay on the hill side.”
It took me some time to explain to them that I was so excited about a lone blue flower hidden among the bushes. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
The men gaped at me for what seemed like hours. I grasped for words, “Well isn’t it? I haven’t see anything like that before.” They looked at me aghast, "so this is what that hysterical shouting and jumping was all about! HUH!"
----- “Well alright, it is pretty,” thankfully someone joined me, “Come we’re late for the camp. You’ll see more”, said Christopher our trek leader, in an offhand manner.
And sure enough I found more at the campsite & went utterly shutter crazy.
“You like Iris?” Christopher asked.
“Like??? I love them. Adore them.”
“Wait till June, we’ll see more. I promise you. You won’t feel like leaving that place.”
‘MORE’ was an understatement. It was 1st week of June; we were coming back from Jalori. The cool breeze & reggae songs almost lulled me off to a nap. The tall pine trees all around were reaching out as earth’s prayers to god. I was soaking up as much green as I could with my eyes. The wheat terrace fields were a choc-a-bloc mosaic of yellow & green. Suddenly I spotted some blue in the deep & verdant coniferous hillside.
“Iris. STOP” I yelled. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The entire lower hillside looked like a page from a fairytale book. Rows & tufts of the plant were growing all over the place. The sun & shade from the huge trees created a magical web with specks of blue in it. A small stream with a water wheel, a yellow wooden bridge & a quaint cottage with a cabbage patch & shocking pink rose bushes. I wonder if the 7 dwarfs were somewhere around.
I hung myself from the Bolero window & filled my memory cells with as many different views as possible. Christopher stopped the car, “Get off.”
What? Has he had too much of my ranting iris, iris, iris?
“You’ll either cause an accident or fall off the window. So go get them.”
I almost fell off the cliff, trying to balance myself & collect the flowers. I stuffed them in my empty water bottle, filled it up from a hand-pump in Jibhi & carried them back to camp. They looked like ballerinas in blue frilly dresses & arms up in position, ready to start dancing. I wasn’t aware of the flower much. But just hoped that they last me a few more days. But sadly by dusk their six petals started neatly rolling in & twisted around each other like the curtains coiling in after a great show. So all the 7 blooms I had, had quietly got over with their display. The flower has style & elegance, even in drying.
I felt bad that I was so busy admiring them all the while that I just forgot to even take a photograph for my album. I didn’t feel like throwing the stems. I kept hoping on the two buds. Two days later, early morning I had 3 mauve flowers sitting pretty, at my window. And believe me they were wonderful. The next 10 days I had a gift of 3/5/7 flowers. But where did all the buds come from?
Tip --- Even if there aren’t any more buds, be lazy & don’t throw the stem. Just below the flower is a bulge, which is a hidden treasure of buds. They take their own sweet time to bloom. Enjoy.
I went again, several times in June. Every time with a new batch of friends, equally awed by the fantastic sight. For almost 4-5 km the entire hillside was blue. Now it was the guys’ turn to go crazy. The sight is so overwhelming that you have to consciously keep your hands off your camera. I think all of them exhausted a reel each.
In the last week of June I sang the ‘Iris’ all the way to our destination. It was drizzling. And this time I couldn’t see much of the jungle around hidden in thick clouds. But I saw the upper hillside abloom since the weather was getting wetter with less sun. Iris needs a moist climate to bloom & is a delicate flower. You can’t carry them back to Delhi. But you can press them in books or just like I did, fill your mind with it.
Those who aren’t too crazy about flowers won’t understand my craze for them. I’m passionate about flowers. But all of you who have often sighed at the tulip fields of Holland, and wished you could run into the flower beds & lie down among them; Go to Shoja in summer. You can stay nearby in the govt. rest houses or camps. And spend some days just being a flower child. Trek in and around the jungle, live a fairy tale holiday. It isn’t difficult to find pleasure in small things of life. As for me, after my daffodil earrings, I’m beading my ‘Iris’ necklace.
By Road : The best way is to drive. It will take about 4 hrs from Delhi on the National Highway 1 to Chandigarh.
If you enter Himachal from Chandigarh, Kalka and Shimla then go via Theog, Narkanda, Ani, Khanag, Jalori Pass and Shoja.
If you enter Himachal from Ropar and Bilaspur then continue on the Manali highway to Aut after Mandi. From Aut turn right towards Larji, Banjar and then Jibhi and Shoja to Jalori pass.
One caution note for Bikers and small car owners. The roads on both sides of the Jalori are steep. So is the road from Jibhi to Shoja and Narkanda onwards to Ani and Jalori.
Luxury Volvo buses leave from Cannaught Place, almost every evening. Book your tickets in advance from authentic Himachal Tourism office not franchisees.
By Air : Land at Bhuntar at Kullu and come down towards Mandi and then follow the Route from Aut.
By Rail : Last Railheads are at Kalka, Shimla, Ropar, Chandigarh, Hoshiarpur, Jallandhar, Una etc. Beyond that take roadways buses or hire sumos.
Accomodation : A high-end camp is there at Shoja, the Banjara camps. But we preferred staying with locals or camping by the Tirthan. and the PWD Guesthouse.
Best time to see IRIS is in May end and June. But it rains a lot during that time so be careful on the roads.